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"Gangs of New York": Fact vs. Fiction

by Ted Chamberlain

for National Geographic News

 

Digging through layers of sediment and stacks of records, archaeologists and historians are unearthing a truer, though no less compelling, picture of the neighborhood Charles Dickens called "a world of vice and misery."

 

When Dickens reported on Five Points in 1842, the neighborhood was on the edge of an explosion. Spurred on by the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, waves of threadbare immigrants arrived in New York City with the wherewithal for only the most miserable lodgings?the drooping tenements of Five Points.

 

For the next two decades, the Irish ruled Five Points, overcrowding a roughly five-square-block area centered on the intersection of Cross Street (today's Park Street), Anthony Street (today's Worth), and Orange Street (today's Baxter). (See an 1859 view.)

 

In Five Points tenements, families and other groups lived crammed into one or two dark rooms. The outhouses were too few and often overflowing. Sewage and pigs ran in the streets. "The whole neighborhood just stank," says historian Tyler Anbinder, who wrote the book Five Points and reviewed the Gangs script for Scorsese.

 

Some holding camphor-soaked kerchiefs to their noses to ward off the stench, middle-class tourists would go "slumming" in Five Points?escorted by police?to see if the lurid tales given by reporters and missionaries were true.

 

"Five Points," wrote one Methodist reformer, had become "the synonym for ignorance the most entire, for misery the most abject, for crime of the darkest dye, for degradation so deep that human nature cannot sink below it."

 

Much of what was written in newspapers, tracts, and books, says archaeologist Rebecca Yamin, was colored by religious zeal, a desire to sell papers, or plain-old fear. "Middle-class outsiders looked at this neighborhood that was teeming with activity and street people selling food, and it was frightening. They just looked from the outside and assumed it was all very bad."

 

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